I’ve made hope the centerpiece of this pair of posts because there’s such a powerful need for it after a depressed partner leaves. However unrealistic the hope may be, it’s necessary to take the place of pain and grief.
The problem of a hope born of desperation is the risk of further shocks in the future as the hope is disappointed. But hope is hard to analyze. The need to believe that the partner who’s gone must still feel something, however hidden, seems to me overwhelming. The moment of crisis is a poor time for realistic thinking.
That’s the problem with much of the advice that’s offered online or from friends, however compassionately it’s done. It comes out of rational, realistic thinking by someone who’s not in the midst of the storm.
On the one hand, that’s its value, a thoughtful perspective from someone you trust. On the other, the urgent need is for someone who will listen without telling you what you should be doing – someone who can respond to your feelings with compassion.
That balance between compassion and reason is also what you need when reaching out to a partner who’s breaking away. And it’s the balance you need to keep yourself going.
The suggestions I can make may not be very satisfactory in the immediacy of the loss. I think it helps, if at all possible, to keep them in mind from the outset.
Taking Care of yourself
After your partner leaves, you may pull out all the stops and follow your impulse to reach him – or you may be too overwhelmed to do anything. Whatever your initial reaction, that first wave of feeling is likely all about loss. The focus is on your partner: his feelings, what he must be going through and the support he needs to deal with his depression.
But the crisis is also about your needs. You’re under huge stress, and it could have been building over a long period. You’ve likely been living with depression for some time, even if neither you nor your partner recognized what was going on.
You need support, not just to figure out why he’s taken off and what you can do for him, but to help you deal with what you’re going through. If you don’t, you can go downhill fast into your own depression.
Depression is Contagious
Many therapists, like Michael Yapko, describe depression as contagious, and I think they’re right. A depressed partner can hit you with emotional withdrawal and refusal to talk, or go to the opposite extreme of blame, anger and emotional abuse.
Whatever it’s been like, you’ve taken the brunt of it. Stress sustained over a long period can cause numerous health problems. The hurt, worry, anxiety and anger in the closest relationship you have can readily lead to depression, along with its impact on sleep, appetite and motivation. It also can push you into isolation and hopelessness that can prevent you from getting the help you need.
Just as your partner needs help, so do you.
How to Get Help
The key thing is to find someone who will listen without judgment and help you work on the issues your partner’s depression and leaving have caused. This person could be a friend or religious counselor or therapist. Someone who has been trained to help people sort through such problems would probably be best.
If you can’t identify anyone through your own friends and family, you can consult online directories, like this one or Psych Central’s listing of numerous directories.
Talking to others who have had to face the same crisis is excellent support. You can find in-person and online peer support groups through the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and also try the long-time online forum called Depression Fallout. These are especially valuable because you can find a lot advice that’s already been tried by people in your position.
Is Communication Possible?
This is someone you still love and you’re not going to sit by and do nothing. To a great extent, though, what you can do depends on what your partner lets you do.
Some block out all communication: no meetings, no calls, emails, letters or text messages. Perhaps they’ve moved away so you don’t even have an address. You can only talk to his friends or family to find out how he is or to convey a message for you. But there’s no response at all. That’s a pretty powerful signal of finality, but I’ve heard from many who try to find hope even in the refusal to respond.
Others are willing to talk, but the message is: I have to be alone to deal with depression and can’t be in a close relationship now. Total isolation is the answer while he works on his problems, often without help from anyone.
Some try to maintain the tie by talking frequently and express confusion about the relationship. Some stay in touch only to remind you that they think their problems are all your fault.
There are many other messages depressed partners might offer, but the bottom line is that they’ve cut you out of any active role. Often, they look on leaving as a big part of the answer to depression and never get treatment.
Generally, the behavior you see after they’ve left mirrors closely the way they treated you before taking the drastic step of getting out.
In thinking about how you can help, the key thing to keep in mind is that no one but the depressed partner can take the first steps to deal with illness. And he’ll do it in his own time, if he does it all. You can’t do it for him, but you can offer help and support.
In fact, that may be the only thing you can do, if communication is limited, and you get no response or invitation to do more. But if the door is open, you can offer help by sending information about depression or ideas you’ve found online. You can mention the types of treatment that are available, how to locate therapists, films, short videos and books that might be relevant. You can identify ways of getting help if he has no medical insurance. And you can simply indicate your availability to help whenever he might choose to call on you.
All this can clarify the options he has when he’s ready to make a serious attempt at treatment. You have to trust him to make up his own mind in his own time.
What You’re Really Communicating
It’s hard, though, to be that detached when you do get in touch. Usually, the motive for communicating is not simply to help but to keep the relationship going and keep your hope alive that he’ll return. It’s easy to push too hard so he’ll get rid of the depression that’s keeping you apart.
The message you communicate may come across in a way you don’t intend. He might read it as having to do more with your needs than with his. It may not sound like a disinterested offer, and that makes it hard for him to take your advice. Doing so would seem more like a sign that he was coming back to you, and that’s too sensitive to consider.
Making lots of suggestions about what he should do implies that it’s within his power to take action. However, he may not be able to do much of anything if he’s really going through an episode of major depression. He might just castigate himself all the more for not being able to follow your advice. Even after deciding to get out of his dark room and seek help, he’ll have a long way to go before learning how to cope with the illness and get back to his vital self. Inaction may not be a refusal to help himself but rather a sign of the depth of his depression.
Letting him move at his own pace is essential, but that too is hard when you long so much to restore the relationship or at least be assured that getting back together is a goal he shares. He might not know the answer to that himself.
Your Decision about You
Whatever you try to do or communicate may never have much effect. You may never get a signal that gives you real hope. Just as your partner has to decide about treatment, you’ll have to decide what’s best for you, and you’ll do it your own pace. There are no fixed rules to follow about any of these, just a series of examples of what others have done.
That’s why I emphasize the importance of taking care of yourself by getting the help and support you need. If you can do that, hopefully, you’ll get the guidance you’re looking for.